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Poster: Mr. Date: Feb 4, 2006 11:03am
Forum: movies Subject: Centron

Now here's something a lot of us can talk about---Centron and its films. Yes, along with those films of producers like Coronet, Jam-Handy, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Sid Davis, etc., films made by Centron are quite a popular fixture on the Internet Archive.

Centron was founded by Topekans Art Wolf and Russ Mosser in Lawrence, Kansas in 1947. They started out making short, ten-minute educational films on sewing, cooking, and public speaking for Young America Films of New York. However, during this time business was slow for the new company, and so Mosser and Wolf opened up a retail camera store in front of their studio which they appropriately named Mosser-Wolf Cameras, to assure a steady income.

If there was anything that Centron really thrived on, it was their proximity to the University of Kansas, just a few blocks away. K.U. provided a bottomless well of actors and educational collaborators to dip into, plus a number of local film talents---by 1949, Centron had their original staff in place: cameraman Norm Stuewe, editor and sound recorder Chuck Lacey, extremely talented writer and animation artist Trudy Travis, director Herk Harvey, and a few others including editor Dan Palmquist, writer-director Gene Courtney, and photographer Maurice Prather---almost all of them K.U. grads. Also, Art Wolf, president of Centron, could direct, write scripts, record sound, do artwork, and compose music. What Centron lacked in numbers they made up for with versatility---they were all multi-talented. Centron was certainly a team effort toward filmmaking.

Right around that time, Centron suddenly became a successful film producer. They were signed to make public relations films for K.U. and the University of Mississippi, and also did a number of films for Spencer Chemical Company (one of them featuring Billy Barty, the "famous midget" on the Spike Jones TV show). Centron began doing more films for industrial clients, and did several tourism promotional movies for the Kansas Industrial and Commercial Development Association which were shown on national TV across the U.S. Also, in 1951, Centron began producing its "Discussion Problems in Group Living" educational film series for Young America and later McGraw-Hill which lasted through 1959. These films are Centron at its educational film best, these movies best remembered for their amateurish acting by mostly kid performers, the Midwestern speech and mannerisms, the expressionistic clock, telephone, and fantasy sequences, the realistic locations found around Lawrence---and of course for being featured on "MST3K".

Perhaps one of the bigger steps in the development of Centron as a business was its move from the cramped back of a camera shop to their own custom-built movie studio in Lawrence in 1955. This building (which now houses KU's film department) was back in those days the only building in the Midwest designed specifically as a film studio and the second largest sound stage west of the Mississippi (the largest being the one at the Calvin Co. in nearby Kansas City). With this extra extra extra space, Centron soon expanded from ten people on staff to over thirty and the productions grew more complex, with giantic sets being constructed as duplications of entire yards and streets, houses, etc.

In 1958, Centron crews began traveling the world. A three-man crew was sent to the then-Soviet Union to bring back images for an educational geography film on that region, and in 1963 another crew (directed by Herk Harvey) was sent to South America for eighty days to film the geography and social life of Mexico, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Lesser Antilles for a promotional travelogue film. Later in the '60s, Centron shot a series of films on all 50 states and also filmed in Europe and Britain in the late '60s and early '70s. In the mid-'70s, there were numerous trips to Scotland, and finally in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a whole series of movies made in Korea, trips which the Centroners remembered the most fondly. The Korean series won many awards, and speaking of awards, Centron won over 485 film awards from 35 U.S. film festivals (including 48 CINE Golden Eagle awards and 113 awards from the Columbus Film Festival) and 23 foreign film festivals. Somewhere in here was also an Academy Award nomination in 1971 for their moving classroom film, "Leo Beuereman," about a real-life disabled man from Lawrence who overcame his disabilities independently. Centron, fed up with Young America and McGraw-Hill, also started their own distribution company, Centron Educational Films.

Also during the 1960s, Centron began doing quite a lot of more industrial-type production. Fortune 500 companies, including General Motors, General Electric, Exxon, Phillips Petroleum, Continental Oil, Skelly Oil, Monsanto Chemical Company, Eli Lilly & Company, Hallmark, Sears-Roebuck, Caterpillar Tractor, John Deere, Tenneco, Union Pacific, AC Delco, and many others, hired Centron to deliver their message to stockholders and consumers. This work continued until the early 1980s. Big-name Hollywood stars, including Rowen and Martin, Ed Ames, Eddie Albert, Dennis Day, Ed White, Walter Pidgeon, and Anita Bryant, were often flown into Lawrence to be in these films. When a salesman or retailer sees a big star talking about the wonders of a new model refrigerator or a higher grade motor oil, they get the message. One of the last industrial film productions from Centron, "Shake Hands with Danger" (1980), directed by Herk Harvey, used Hollywood stuntmen for Caterpillar which received several U.S. awards and awards from Belgium and Denmark festivals, the first presented to a U.S. production. Centron throughout its career also did a number of films for the Navy, Air Force, and other government organizations and associations.

Finally, another reason why Centron may be notable is that Herk Harvey, a director there since 1953, took a three-week leave of absence from Centron in 1961 to produce and direct (in Lawrence and Salt Lake City) the horror film "Carnival of Souls", a cult classic which took 27 years to find its audience. John Clifford had come to Centron to become a film writer in 1960 and he and Harvey hit it off to the point where Harvey trusted Clifford to write Harvey's only feature film. Harvey would have made more in Lawrence, he had already commissioned two comedy scripts, one from Clifford the other from a K.U. administrator, but things fell through due to a crooked distributor from California. Harvey has often said that most people think he didn't get to do anything else creative, but he maintains that his life at Centron was teriffic and his films won awards, he got to travel the world, he worked with some big stars and with some of the world's more important people (educational collaborators from Harvard University, British artists and scholar, etc.), and from what I hear did everything to get a film done for Centron, climbing to the top of a water tower, braving Papa Doc's cruel guards in Haiti, filming from cars being driven into lakes, and basically trying to keep things moving along under very trying circumstances. Harvey retired from Centron in 1984 as did Clifford. Harvey, who was originally from Fort Collins, Colorado, and came to Lawrence after WWII to study at KU, died of pancreatic cancer in Lawrence in 1996.

And as for Centron, well, once industrial and educational VIDEOS became the thing, out with the projectors in classrooms and since Centron was pretty much tied to film since its start in 1947, there was nothing to do but sell the company. Art Wolf and Russ Mosser were getting old and near retirement anyway. After Wolf and Musser sold in 1981, the Centron company continued for a few more years in a desperate attempt to succeed after switching to video but it didn't work. Most employees retired or the younger ones left and went on to greater or lesser heights and Centron was fractured into bits and pieces and certain pieces were sold off to places like Coronet and Gulf and Western.

Discussion?

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Poster: FP Date: Feb 4, 2006 3:22pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Centron

That sure is one heck of a lot more than I knew about Centron! Now I'm an authority on the subject - at least, until I forget about it five minutes from now.

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Poster: Gene Courtney Date: Mar 3, 2006 5:07am
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Centron

My name is Doug Courtney who is the son of Gene Courtney mentioned in this article. If you have any information regarding my father please pass it on to me. dcourtney_383@hotmail.com

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Poster: Mr. Date: Mar 10, 2006 11:25am
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Centron

Doug Courtney,

Your father Gene stars as "Fred Strong" in the movie Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance" (1949) here on this archive at www.archive.org/details/SpeechP11949 He also appears as an angry man on the telephone in "Speech: The Function of Gestures," also here at www.archive.org/details/SpeechFu1950.

As for information regarding your father, there is little to be found anywhere, except for some mentions of him in the book on Centron, "Centron Remembered," by Russ Mosser:

"Gene Courtney had at one time been in the University of Kansas speech and drama department, but he came to Centron from Northwestern where he was working on a doctorate in communication. He directed and did some writing and did a little work in sales."

Later in the book, it says "in 1957 we decided to give advertising for the Kansas Right-To-Work political campaign a try and assigned Gene Courtney, a young film director who had completed most of his doctorate at Northwestern in communications, to manage the account."

Also it says that Gene Courtney wrote some of the original lyrics for the many original industrial musicals Centron would make during the '60s featuring big-name stars. Near the end of the book it is revealed that Gene Courtney in the '70s or '80s left Centron to work at Maritz Company in St. Louis, where he "was quite successful."

That's all the info I could find at the immediate moment.